BOOK REVIEW: Savage Appetites, by Rachel Monroe

BOOK REVIEW: Savage Appetites, by Rachel MonroeTitle: Savage Appetites: Four True Stories of Women, Crime, and Obsession by Rachel Monroe
Published by Scribner
Published: August 20th 2019
Genres: Cultural Studies
Pages: 272
Format: ARC
Source: Publisher
Goodreads

A provocative and original investigation of our cultural fascination with crime, linking four archetypes—Detective, Victim, Attorney, Killer—to four true stories about women driven by obsession.

In this illuminating exploration of women, violence, and obsession, Rachel Monroe interrogates the appeal of true crime through four narratives of fixation. In the 1940s, a bored heiress began creating dollhouse crime scenes depicting murders, suicides, and accidental deaths. Known as the “Mother of Forensic Science,” she revolutionized the field of what was then called legal medicine. In the aftermath of the Manson Family murders, a young woman moved into Sharon Tate’s guesthouse and, over the next two decades, entwined herself with the Tate family. In the mid-nineties, a landscape architect in Brooklyn fell in love with a convicted murderer, the supposed ringleader of the West Memphis Three, through an intense series of letters. After they married, she devoted her life to getting him freed from death row. And in 2015, a teenager deeply involved in the online fandom for the Columbine killers planned a mass shooting of her own.

Each woman, Monroe argues, represents and identifies with a particular archetype that provides an entryway into true crime. Through these four cases, she traces the history of American crime through the growth of forensic science, the evolving role of victims, the Satanic Panic, the rise of online detectives, and the long shadow of the Columbine shooting. In a combination of personal narrative, reportage, and a sociological examination of violence and media in the twentieth and twenty-first century, Savage Appetites scrupulously explores empathy, justice, and the persistent appeal of violence.

Rachel Monroe’s Savage Appetites explores the cultural phenomenon of true crime and how women tend to be drawn to the “genre” even though women are more likely to be victims in true crime “stories.” This was an examination of our society’s fascination with true crime and how that fascination has grown over the years through four case studies. In Savage Appetites, Monroe takes those fascinations of women with true crime and separates them into four general archetypes – detective, victim, attorney, killer.

Through each of these archetypes, Monroe combines thorough research with her own anecdotes to explore what exactly it is that makes true crime so fascinating not only for women but for all of us. While her writing flowed easily and I enjoyed learning what she tied in with her archetypes, I felt that it all fell flat because some of the attitudes were a little negatively skewed toward the women featured in the archetypes. It’s uncomfortable to read unnecessary criticism against women in a book about women, but because I’m not well-read in true crime, maybe that’s something delved into a little more? I’m not sure. For me, when someone is offering cultural insight and criticism, I do want there to be more about what we as a society could do to be better or how it ultimately affects our society to be so interested in an ultimately violent “genre.” What happens when true crime begins being viewed as fiction rather than something that happened to real people? Do we become more desensitized to the violence because we’re beginning to assume it’s fiction and therefore can’t happen to us?

Even though true crime has certainly morphed into a genre, I was hoping for more in Savage Appetites about the implications of calling true crime a genre and ultimately why we’re becoming more and more fascinated with true crime. One more chapter tying the four archetypes together and exploring a result or conclusion would have made me like this a little bit more!

Thank you to Scribner for sending me a complimentary copy to review. All opinions are my own.

BOOK REVIEW: Ask Again, Yes, by Mary Beth Keane

BOOK REVIEW: Ask Again, Yes, by Mary Beth KeaneTitle: Ask Again, Yes by Mary Beth Keane
Published by Scribner
Published: May 28th 2019
Genres: Fiction
Pages: 400
Format: Hardcover
Source: Publisher
Goodreads

A profoundly moving novel about two neighboring families in a suburban town, the friendship between their children, a tragedy that reverberates over four decades, and the power of forgiveness.

Francis Gleeson and Brian Stanhope are two NYPD rookies assigned to the same Bronx precinct in 1973. They aren’t close friends on the job, but end up living next door to each other outside the city. What goes on behind closed doors in both houses—the loneliness of Francis’s wife, Lena, and the instability of Brian’s wife, Anne, sets the stage for the stunning events to come.

Ask Again, Yes by award-winning author Mary Beth Keane, is a beautifully moving exploration of the friendship and love that blossoms between Francis’s youngest daughter, Kate, and Brian’s son, Peter, who are born six months apart. In the spring of Kate and Peter’s eighth grade year a violent event divides the neighbors, the Stanhopes are forced to move away, and the children are forbidden to have any further contact.

But Kate and Peter find a way back to each other, and their relationship is tested by the echoes from their past. Ask Again, Yes reveals how the events of childhood look different when reexamined from the distance of adulthood—villains lose their menace, and those who appeared innocent seem less so. Kate and Peter’s love story is marked by tenderness, generosity, and grace.

Sometimes when I go into a book I just know it’s going to be one of those hit books of the summer. Ask Again, Yes is such a compelling character portrait of what happens when the lives of two families are entwined and changed from the beginnings of their children’s lives until the end.

Aside from the synopsis on the back and a little bit of early buzz from people I follow on social media, I didn’t know what to expect when I started this, and there’s a pivotal scene in the book that had me left in a little shock. I mean, I kind of knew it was coming, but the pacing of that scene was absolute perfection. The novel mostly follows what happened after in each of the character’s lives, after the Gleesons and Stanhopes recover; through the rest of high school, college, and beyond for their children, Kate and Peter; and how one reconciles the past with the present and future.

Keane handles mental illness, everyday violence, and love, forgiveness, and hope found within these characters with profound tenderness and empathy. This isn’t a sentimental novel, but it will certainly make you feel things throughout it all. Especially at the end.

Once I dug into this, I read it in about a day and a half. I had to know how things resolved, what happened to the characters, and to bask in the clear, fresh prose. If you enjoyed the tone of Celeste Ng’s Little Fires Everywhere, consider this your next read.

Many thanks to Scribner for sending me a copy of this to review! All opinions are my own.

BOOK REVIEW: Stay Up with Hugo Best, by Erin Somers

BOOK REVIEW: Stay Up with Hugo Best, by Erin SomersTitle: Stay Up with Hugo Best by Erin Somers
Published by Scribner
Published: April 2nd 2019
Genres: Fiction
Pages: 272
Format: Hardcover
Source: Publisher
Goodreads

An incredibly timely, terrifically witty and moving debut about a young writer's assistant on a late night comedy show and what transpires when she accepts an invitation from its enigmatic host to spend a long weekend at his mansion in Connecticut.

June Bloom is a broke, cynical twenty-nine-year-old writer's assistant on the late-night comedy show, Stay Up with Hugo Best. Hugo Best is in his sixties, a beloved icon of TV and humor, and a notorious womanizer. After he unexpectedly retires and a party is held for his now unemployed staff, June ends up at a dive bar for an open-mic night and prepares for the sad return to the anonymous comedian lifestyle. What she’s not prepared for is a run-in with Hugo at that dive bar. Nor for the invitation that swiftly follows: Hugo asks June to come to his mansion in Greenwich for the long Memorial Day weekend. “No funny business,” he insists.

June, in need of a job and money, confident she can handle herself, but secretly harboring the remains of a childhood crush on the charming older comedian and former role model, accepts. The exact terms of the visit are never spelled out, but June is realistic and clear-eyed enough to guess. Even so, as the weekend unfolds and the enigmatic Hugo gradually reveals himself, their dynamic proves to be much more complicated and less predictable than she expected.

At once hilarious and poignant, brilliantly incisive and terrifically propulsive, Stay Up with Hugo Best is an incredibly timely exploration of sexual politics in the #MeToo age, and the unforgettable story of one young woman’s poignant stumbling into adulthood.

June Bloom, a twenty-nine year old writing assistant for a late night comedy show called “Stay Up with Hugo Best,” finds herself unemployed after Hugo Best suddenly announces his retirement from late-night television. Stay Up with Hugo Best is a wry look into late night television that is a little reminiscent of NBC’s 30 Rock’s flavor in the sense that it gives you that behind-the-scenes glimpse into the aftermath of what happens once a popular late-night comedy show ends.

As a suddenly-unemployed almost thirty year old, June has to figure out what she wants to do and where she’s going now that her current career trajectory has come to a halt. Hugo Best has to reconcile his past, present, and future, scandals and all. Their two lines entangle more once Hugo invites June to spend some time with him at his mansion.

The lines entangle more the closer Hugo and June become, and it’s a timely look at the #metoo movement as June struggles to balance what she wants and she believes in while observing the men in her life and Hugo’s life take what they want with essentially no consequences.

Over the four days she spends with him, June realizes the realities behind the fame she had obsessed over and the costs of such extravagance, and once she leaves, she’s neither fully satisfied or sure where her life will go next, but the weekend at Hugo Best’s mansion certainly signaled a shift in her perception.

Although all of the characters were unlikable at times, Somers’ debut novel is a sly look into our obsessions with fame, television, and the sordid details behind the scenes. I felt June was a little too passive for the career she wanted to be in, but in a way it works for this sort of novel. Overall, Last Night with Hugo Best is a solid debut novel and worth checking out if you enjoy late-night television and behind-the-scenes glimpses into famous lives.

Thank you to Scribner for sending me a complimentary copy to review! All opinions are my own.

BOOK REVIEW: The Island of Sea Women, by Lisa See

BOOK REVIEW: The Island of Sea Women, by Lisa SeeTitle: The Island of Sea Women by Lisa See
Published by Scribner
Published: March 5th 2019
Genres: Fiction, Historical
Pages: 384
Format: Trade Paper
Source: Publisher
Goodreads

A new novel from Lisa See, the New York Times bestselling author of The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane, about female friendship and family secrets on a small Korean island.

Mi-ja and Young-sook, two girls living on the Korean island of Jeju, are best friends that come from very different backgrounds. When they are old enough, they begin working in the sea with their village’s all-female diving collective, led by Young-sook’s mother. As the girls take up their positions as baby divers, they know they are beginning a life of excitement and responsibility but also danger.

Despite their love for each other, Mi-ja and Young-sook’s differences are impossible to ignore. The Island of Sea Women is an epoch set over many decades, beginning during a period of Japanese colonialism in the 1930s and 1940s, followed by World War II, the Korean War and its aftermath, through the era of cell phones and wet suits for the women divers. Throughout this time, the residents of Jeju find themselves caught between warring empires. Mi-ja is the daughter of a Japanese collaborator, and she will forever be marked by this association. Young-sook was born into a long line of haenyeo and will inherit her mother’s position leading the divers in their village. Little do the two friends know that after surviving hundreds of dives and developing the closest of bonds, forces outside their control will push their friendship to the breaking point.

This beautiful, thoughtful novel illuminates a world turned upside down, one where the women are in charge, engaging in dangerous physical work, and the men take care of the children. A classic Lisa See story—one of women’s friendships and the larger forces that shape them—The Island of Sea Women introduces readers to the fierce and unforgettable female divers of Jeju Island and the dramatic history that shaped their lives.

Lisa See’s new book, out March 5, is a stunning story of two women separated by tragedy. Set mostly on Jeju Island before, during, and after World War II, See explores the strength and tribulations of women in all aspects of their lives — from their work as haenyo (deep sea divers), mothers, daughters, sisters, friends — and brings history to life through the lives of two friends: Young-sook and Mjia.

Told through interweaving timelines, from the more distant past of pre- and post-WWII to the more recent past of 2008, See takes us to Jeju Island through the eyes of Young-sook as she grows up, learns to dive and provide for herself and her family, marries, starts a family of her own, and struggles to survive through WWII and its aftermath. It’s a brutal history, devastating from all angles, that See weaves into the life of Young-Sook, but it’s incredibly empowering and a pleasure to read as the book is a testament to the strength and resilience of women.

I will admit, before reading this, I had very vague knowledge of Korea’s involvement in WWII (as I grow older, I realize how much of my history education stopped around the Industrial Revolution at the turn of the century and didn’t seem to focus much on the World Wars or anything after, and this is something I am actively rectifying!), and I no prior knowledge of Jeju Island, the matriarchal culture, and the haenyo. After reading this and being so intrigued by these women’s lives, I definitely want to read more about it. See’s book Snow Flower and the Secret Fan is one of my favorite books of all time. It’s been several years since I revisited her work, and I’m delighted by the relationship between two women and their families in The Island of Sea Women. I now want to go back and read the books of hers I haven’t read yet because I think See is a master at weaving in the personal, private lives of women with extraordinary circumstances in history.

The Island of Sea Women is already one of my favorite books of 2019, so don’t miss it!

Thank you to Scribner Books for sending me a complimentary advance copy to read and review. All opinions are my own.

BOOK REVIEW: Hollywood’s Eve, by Lili Anolik

BOOK REVIEW: Hollywood’s Eve, by Lili AnolikTitle: Hollywood's Eve: Eve Babitz and the Secret History of L.A. by Lili Anolik
Published by Scribner
Published: January 8th 2019
Genres: Biography
Pages: 288
Format: Hardcover
Source: Publisher
Goodreads

Los Angeles in the 1960s and 70s was the pop culture capital of the world—a movie factory, a music factory, a dream factory. Eve Babitz was the ultimate factory girl, a pure product of LA.

The goddaughter of Igor Stravinsky and a graduate of Hollywood High, Babitz posed in 1963, at age twenty, playing chess with the French artist Marcel Duchamp. She was naked; he was not. The photograph, cheesecake with a Dadaist twist, made her an instant icon of art and sex. Babitz spent the rest of the decade rocking and rolling on the Sunset Strip, honing her notoriety. There were the album covers she designed: for Buffalo Springfield and the Byrds, to name but a few. There were the men she seduced: Jim Morrison, Ed Ruscha, Harrison Ford, to name but a very few.

Then, at nearly thirty, her It girl days numbered, Babitz was discovered—as a writer—by Joan Didion. She would go on to produce seven books, usually billed as novels or short story collections, always autobiographies and confessionals. Under-known and under-read during her career, she’s since experienced a breakthrough. Now in her mid-seventies, she’s on the cusp of literary stardom and recognition as an essential—as the essential—LA writer. Her prose achieves that American ideal: art that stays loose, maintains its cool, and is so sheerly enjoyable as to be mistaken for simple entertainment.

For Babitz, life was slow days, fast company until a freak fire in the 90s turned her into a recluse, living in a condo in West Hollywood, where Lili Anolik tracked her down in 2012. Anolik’s elegant and provocative new book is equal parts biography and detective story. It is also on dangerously intimate terms with its subject: artist, writer, muse, and one-woman zeitgeist, Eve Babitz.

It seems like two summers ago, everyone on Bookstagram and on book Twitter was talking about Eve Babitz. The more I read about her from the people I followed, the more I wanted to know who she was through her writing. I purchased Sex & Rage in the fall of 2017 (and, shamefully, still haven’t read it), and I bought Eve’s Hollywood this past fall at Strand Bookstore in New York City while I was there visiting a friend. I read Eve’s Hollywood from the end of November to December last year, and I simultaneously wanted to devour that book in a day and savor it over all time. I finally understood why everyone was talking about Eve Babitz (again).

Babitz is an enigma. She’ll make you fall in love with her Los Angeles, and she’ll make you fall in love with her, all while keeping you at an arm’s length so you can’t help but want to listen to everything she has to say. Lili Anolik’s fascination with Eve Babitz, her life, and writing, turned into a Vanity Fair article that was later expanded into Hollywood’s Eve. I read Anolik’s Hollywood’s Eve in a single sitting. I picked it up, read a few chapters, and did what I had to do for the day quickly so that I could spend the rest of my afternoon completely engrossed in Anolik’s discovery, research, and eventual personal connection with Babitz.

I really enjoyed Anolik’s emulation of Babitz’s style, mixing in personal experience with the subject at hand. I find for certain biographies, this style works well, because a writer is able to add in personal anecdotes about people and places that would seem out of place in a more “formal” biography. I learned a lot about Hollywood in the 60s and 70s through Eve’s Hollywood and Hollywood’s Eve that I’ve not really seen or read discussed anywhere else — like the bits about the Didions and Harrison Ford. Sometimes for me, who has only recently begun to dive into the behind-the-scenes stories of a Hollywood that’s gone, it’s a little jaw-dropping to see so many well-known faces know having those connections back then. That knowledge adds so much depth to the writing and film I’ll consume from that point forward, you know?

Eve Babitz is not often likeable, but she is an incredible observer and writer. I thoroughly enjoyed the small part Anolik included that contrasted Eve with her sister Mirandi because it added so much more understanding to Eve as a person. Over the years I’ve read a lot more about and by “difficult” women, women who sometimes behave in ways that men do and the men are praised for it (or have their actions conveniently brushed aside) while the women are villainized or shamed for it? And why? Because they’re women? I’m still confronting that within myself and realizing the best thing I can do is listen, absorb, and pay attention. And maybe be more like Babitz myself.

Thank you to Scribner for sending me a copy of Hollywood’s Eve to review! All opinions are my own.